New York Times – For Patients, Welcome Relief From 4 Bare Walls

The New york Times — May 17, 2002

When friends knocked on the door of his hospital room, the young man said, he looked at the photograph of a bright hallway that hung on his wall, and he felt as if he were inviting people into his home.

When the woman lay on her side for a day or two, in too much pain to hold a pen and do the crossword puzzle, she said, she studied the print on the wall across from her hospital bed, thinking about how much she liked the colors and why.

And when another man, on his visits to a hospital treatment room, walked past the abstract rendition of a map of Paris on the wall of a corridor, he said, he thought about how he and his wife had traveled there regularly.

For hospital patients, a blank wall across from a bed can be a menacing presence, a blank canvas for worries and what-if’s, and a sentimental poster can be about as welcome as cracker crumbs in a tautly made bed. But at the Rockefeller University Hospital, on the Upper East Side, 25 original pieces of art by well-known artists are hanging in patients’ rooms, hallways and examination areas. If everyone is a critic, so far, the critics — nurses, visitors and outpatients — are pretty pleased.

”I like being able to look at something other than the fire drill rules,” said Jack Halpern of Park Slope, Brooklyn, who recently spent almost a month in the hospital for psoriasis treatments.

A nonprofit group, RxArt, placed the artwork, which it owns, in February and March. The idea for the project came to the founder of the group, Diane Brown, a former gallery owner, while she was staring at a white ceiling during a CT scan, wishing she could be staring at art by Matthew Ritchie instead.

One piece by Mr. Ritchie, a relief print called ”Sea State One,” kept Susan Granat Weil company during her recent four-week stay at the hospital, which conducts a variety of medical research projects.

”It has straight lines coming down, things that could be puddles or mass confusion or a nervous breakdown,” she said. ”It says ‘hi’ in there, and it has chemical symbols. I still would enjoy it if it were plain, without all the lines.”

She said she had found the sealike colors soothing, and had played around with the idea of making a reproduction of it in embroidery, on batik cloth.

Mr. Halpern had stayed in the same room earlier, while the 25 pieces of art at Rockefeller were being hung, and he chose ”Sea State One” to be placed there.

”I didn’t want something too pleasant on the eye,” he said. ”I wanted something thought-provoking.” During his stay he saw rain, water, fish, a bird and the partial names of chemical elements inside the swirling print.

As a former nursing home administrator, he is familiar with the ickier forms of institutional art.

”We would always change the art in my nursing homes,” he said. ”Ninety-nine percent of them are photos that have nothing to do with the patients’ lives. They’re hotel-type pictures. They don’t want people to steal it, so they put in an old sea scene that must’ve been a nice picture 100 years ago.”

The print in his room reminded him that when he was a little boy, he scribbled once in crayon all over a set of new, empty bookshelves. It was not an unpleasant memory.

Bryon Whitefield, a clerk on the floor where Mr. Halpern and Mrs. Weil stayed, especially liked the map installations by Geraldine Lau, which include views of Paris and the Jersey Shore.

”It was a reflection of city life, and very original work, what you’d usually see in a downtown gallery, not in a hospital,” he told a visitor recently.

In a room nearby, a man who gave only his first name, Michael, was finishing up a two-week stay for an H.I.V. study. On a wall was ”Hartwig House, Truro,” Joel Meyerowitz’s photograph of a bright hallway.

”I was staring at it my first day here, and it’s a perfect picture for a hospital,” he said. ”It’s a home environment, and I was feeling like this is my bedroom, and people would knock on door, to my one-floor home. It’s just not a picture you’d usually see in a hospital.” Among the artworks in the hallways, he liked the blue dot, titled ”No Title,” by Robert Therrien, a screen print of a blue dot on a spiral-bound notebook.

”It’s so simple,” he said. ”A lot of times in hospitals they try so hard to make it upbeat, with copies of strange works that are just drab. A lot of them are of flowers and flowerpots.”

Ms. Brown, a private art dealer who ran galleries in Washington and New York, wanted to create a healing environment while supporting contemporary art. Using donated funds, RxArt buys the works in its collection from artists. She hopes to expand the collection, and bring the art to other hospitals.

Kathy Bell, a registered nurse who works with drug abusers, said the artwork made the hospital attractive and made her patients feel respected, healthier, and better about themselves.

She said that after assignments in places with ”easy-to-be-with” art, working among pieces by artists like Frank Stella and Louise Nevelson left her feeling ”like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ when everything turns color.”

Photo: During a stay at the Rockefeller University Hospital in Manhattan, Susan Granat Weil enjoyed being able to study a work of art by Matthew Ritchie, ”Sea Slate One,” which she found soothing and mentally stimulating.